Matthew Shepard’s Murder: More “Breaking Bad” Than Hate Crime?

Posted by guest blogger Bookworm.


Everything you know about the October 6, 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard is probably wrong. The only thing you know that is correct is the murder itself – and it was truly horrific. Shepard, who was only 21 when he died, was horribly beaten and tortured, and then, dying, was tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyoming. He hung on the fence for 18 hours before a bicyclist found him after first mistaking him for a scarecrow. Shepard died five days later without ever regaining consciousness.

His death was tragic by any definition but, in the annals of American crime, there was nothing to distinguish his death from other brutal murders. There are, after all, bad and crazy people out there. Why, then, do we remember the crime today and why has his name become a by-word for campaigns against hatred, especially gay hatred?

To begin with Shepard was gay. That in itself wouldn’t have been enough to drive a hate-crime industry. What happened, though, was that, even before he died, well-meaning (or misleading) friends told local media that they believed Shepard had been beaten to death because he was gay. They also told the story to such gay activist groups as GLAAD, which believed that the all-American looking Shepard was the perfect poster child to push for “hate crime” legislation concerning gays. With Shepard’s sexuality taking center stage in the drama, an ordinary, albeit brutal, murder became a cause célèbre

The theory that Shepard died because he was gay was given further strength when Fred Phelps’ loathsome church picketed his funeral (“No tears for queers” and “Fag Matt in Hell”) and when the two men arrested for the crime said that they killed Shepard in a homophobic frenzy after he made sexual advances to them. Their girlfriends, who had already tried to give them false alibis, corroborated this story.

Gay journalist Stephen Jimenez, however, has unearthed facts that show that the motivation behind Shepard’s death, however, wasn’t homophobia, it was methamphetamines. The drama of Shepard’s death wasn’t “The Martyrdom of the Gay Man;” instead, it was “Breaking Bad.”

In his soon-to-be-published book about Shepard’s short life and violent death, Jimenez reports on the results of interviews with almost a hundred people connected to Shepard, to the killers, and to the criminal investigation. The result is a story about gay clubs, bisexuality and, above all, the rise of a hitherto unknown drug called “Meth.”

In The Book of Matt, Jimenez examines the laudable, if premature, effort on the part of two of Shepard’s friends to alert the media to what they believed to be a crime of hate. At the time, Shepard was still fighting for his life. By the time he died, five days later, the question had been firmly settled, as news reporters and gay organizations like GLAAD rushed in. As JoAnn Wypijewski wrote in a brilliant 1999 piece for Harper’s Magazine, “Press crews who had never before and have not since lingered over gruesome murders of homosexuals came out in force, reporting their brush with a bigotry so poisonous it could scarcely be imagined.”

Add to that a president who needed to expiate his sins against the LGBT community, still recoiling from the double whammy of DOMA and “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and Shepard’s posthumous status as gay martyr was sealed. The defendants didn’t aid themselves by claiming they’d lured Shepard into their car and then flipped out when he came on to them.

But in what circumstances does someone slam a seven-inch gun barrel into their victim’s head so violently as to crush his brain stem? That’s not just flipping out, that’s psychotic — literally psychotic, to anyone familiar with the long-term effects of methamphetamine. In court, both the prosecutor and the plaintiffs had compelling reasons to ignore this thread, but for Jimenez it is the central context for understanding not only the brutality of the crime but the milieu in which both Shepard and [Aaron] McKinney lived and operated.

By several accounts, McKinney had been on a meth bender for five days prior to the murder, and spent much of October 6 trying to find more drugs. By the evening he was so wound up that he attacked three other men in addition to Shepard. Even Cal Rerucha, the prosecutor who had pushed for the death sentence for McKinney and Henderson, would later concede on ABC’s 20/20 that “it was a murder that was driven by drugs.”

McKinney was completely psychotic by the time his path crossed with Shepard’s on October 6, 1998. And this was not the first time their paths had crossed. Both lived in a shadowy underworld of gay sex and drug clubs, and they’d been spotted on at least two occasions having sex together. By the time the trial rolled around, Aaron and his girlfriend, for whatever reasons, felt that homophobia was a better excuse than drug psychosis. And so a myth and a martyr were born.

The facts, as opposed to the myth, don’t change the tragedy of Shepard’s short life and brutal death. They do, however, cast a terrible light on a media that has long been anxious to build a narrative hostile to mainstream America.


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